Last month, I zoomed with the two teachers—Meghan and Andrew—who helped write the Social Education article Zooming Inquiry last Fall. I checked in to see how their thoughts on zooming inquiry has changed since they first published the article and hear stories from the trenches of teaching social studies through inquiry during a pandemic.
In the article, you said “social studies educators cannot sit this year out.” How have you seen social studies teachers engaging with current events this year?
Most of the social studies teachers that that I know have been pretty eager to tackle most events head on. I think that part of it is that this year is so weird that there’s almost like no pressure in terms of like content and so it’s kind of like every teacher is, “Okay, a teachable moment.” I do think that this year’s been so weird it’s given teachers this opening to really tackle things that are relevant and important.
I think that there is this flexibility to address current events if you choose to. We said that we we couldn’t sit the year out in the summer, but now it seems even more important. I also think that students are far more engaged in current events than they have been in the past, so I’m getting a lot more questions from students. I will add these are some of the hardest conversations I’ve had to navigate as a teacher in my 14 years of teaching, so it isn’t that it is an easy task, but I think teachers have all been willing to step up to the plate and tackle these issues with students.
How has Zoom fatigue impacted your teaching?
It’s been emotionally and mentally exhausting. I think that what “zoom school” has done is it has taken away a lot of those moments that teachers really value with students. A lot of the casual interactions; getting to see students learn, getting to see them wrestle with questions. You can’t do that.
So, the connections were always hard for me to begin with and now with ridiculously low attendance and low engagement, my weaknesses are amplified. There’s been so many times where it just feels like you’re absolutely failing, so many more times than any normal year. Now that I am in the second semester, I’m starting to feel like I’m connecting with some kids. There’s been so many opportunities to kick yourself for feeling like you are failing, that I think you cherish the successes a lot more. I feel like I’ve had a few more wins in the last few weeks than I had in the entire first four months. I think maybe we didn’t realize how valuable those moments were before.
Have you been able to use (or observe) the Pomodoro technique in teaching? How has it gone?
The idea of the Pomodoro Technique is having a break time. That is something that makes people nervous, but if you really think about it, it’s much more manageable in the distance learning setting [than in the classroom]. Chunking has always been a part of what I do anyways, but it is especially important now because you know these kids are facing a million distractions. Even if you can’t hear it, even if they are muted. So, knowing that they’re distracted, knowing that there are other things that they could or want to be doing, it’s almost like you need those checkpoints of boom, we’re moving on to something else or boom, here’s a chance to enable those distractions for five minutes.
I’ve been really thinking about chunking my class time in a way that I hadn’t thought about before. Now I’m intentionally making sure that we are doing activities that are meaningful, that are concentrated. Then, once you are done with that, you need to have a break. I think with the experience of being on zoom all day, we get exhausted faster.
In the article, you talked about changing time frames for inquiries (“Focused inquiries usually take 1-2 class periods, but we stretched this one out so that we could linger a bit on the skill-building parts of the inquiry setting foundational work around questions, tasks, and sources”) How has online schooling made you modify inquiry in other ways?
In terms of the pacing, it’s been a major balancing act. What I found is that the IDM, especially a focused inquiry, is pretty ideal because things do take so long. Even before, I’ve had struggles with inquiries that go beyond three or four supporting questions. It can take so long that you lose focus on the compelling question. I have found the best way to tackle, at least for me, the pacing that I do with my kids is to focus on no more than two or three supporting questions and make sure you spend a significant amount of time on the sources and the tasks and, really, on the questions themselves. Those are the things that you cannot breeze through. I’ve had to shorten the length of the inquiry but stretch out the amount of time dissecting the pieces.
The other thing that I found useful is I’ve been focusing on inquiry skills—the idea of setting up a task around a question that we use primary sources to answer. Using those pieces in smaller chunks—not necessarily as part of an inquiry—has given some of my day-to-day lessons purpose that I think serves to engage my students better. For example, we might be reading a primary source and students have to identify the author’s claim. Or, I give students the claim and they have to find three pieces of evidence from the article that support the claim. I’ve been trying to embed those skills across all of my curriculum, not just in the places where I’m doing a traditional inquiry.
Focusing on these inquiry skills has convinced me that you can see growth in a short amount of time. In a semester under these horrible conditions, students can still engage in inquiry.
As we begin to think about transitioning back to in person learning, how do you see this method influencing how you teach inquiry in person?
I’ve been saying that like the worst thing that we can do is teachers is make the classrooms of 2022 looks like the classrooms of 2019 because if we do that, we failed.
I actually teach at Normal Community High School in Normal, IL, so we jokingly talk about a return to normal all the time!
I think that there are there are some pieces of this that I’m hoping I can balance once the pressure of covering content returns. This year, I’ve had to focus on where my students actually are academically, and I can’t pretend that they are somewhere they’re not. I think, I if I’m being truly reflective, when I’m in person, I can focus on the kids who get what’s going on and I can look over other kids who are struggling. Remote learning makes that impossible and so I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to continue to focus on where my students truly are.
I’m hoping that our students realize what social studies could be now. That when you have the opportunity to ask compelling questions and have discussions and true engagement, that they’re going to find it hard to go back to normal.
Thank you, Meghan and Andrew, for sharing the true highs and lows of teaching social studies through inquiry during a pandemic. Two things I think we can all take with us as we finish out this school year is teaching intentionally and going back to the basics of inquiry. Sometimes, it is important to think about the next step lest we get overwhelmed with what is in front of us and you gave us some great first steps to think about.